Help Wanted: Great Leader. No Technical Experience Needed?

Who would you rather have for a manager:

A: Someone who has great leadership skills, but knows little about your specific work or…

B: Someone with tons of experience and skill in your work, but with only so-so leadership skills?

Ah, you say, it’s a trick question. The right answer is C: both, right?

Well sure, the ideal manager, or even CEO, brings the complete package to the table: functional, industry, leadership skills, diversity, and nice hair. However, we all know that those perfect candidates are hard to find and rarely exist.

The “leadership vs. technical” skills debate is not a new one, but it’s been in the news a lot lately. The issue was raised during the recent U.S. presidential elections, both with Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Leon Panetta and Sanjay Gupta are two more names that have been criticized for a lack of technical experience.

Donna Bear from i4cp, just wrote an interesting article on the debate in this month’s i4cp Trendwatcher. She points to two recent examples (Microsoft and LinkedIn) of CEOs who appointed HR executives with no HR experience.

She goes on to ask some rather interesting questions:

“Why is it deemed perfectly acceptable to place someone with no related experience in HR but not in other functions? Does it reinforce a perception that “HR” equals “people-related” and, therefore, any executive should be able to handle it? Or does it prove that HR is an ideal training ground for executive talent?Some may feel that the idea of placing a generalist executive in HR is a dismissive statement about the necessity or value of HR expertise. Why not place a charismatic, trustworthy, intelligent thinker with no financial experience in a CFO position? Would a proven leader with these attributes but no direct manufacturing experience be a viable candidate for the VP of manufacturing? Those with this viewpoint might hold that this is just another slam to the HR profession: “Come head up HR … no experience necessary.”

Well, actually, yes, I’ve seen lot’s of examples of successful manufacturing, marketing, engineering, and HR executives with little or no technical experience (I admit, though, I’ve never heard of a successful CFO with no finance background).

LinkedIn’s CEO Dan Nye, in explaining his decision to hire an HR novice said, “…when it comes to people, I always put a premium on people who are incredibly bright who demonstrate strong leadership skills, and where they have strong critical thinking skills and really strong communication skills. I will always put a premium on that over functional experience.”

Scott Eblin, executive coach extraordinaire, and author of the book “The Next Level”, says it best, in a recent post where he talks about the selection of Carol Bartz as the new CEO of Yahoo, and Cisco’s John Chamber’s endorsement of her selection:
“What leaders like Chambers and Bartz understand is that the bigger the job, the more it’s about leadership and the less it’s about long term technical knowledge.”

Scott uses the following chart to illustrate the ratio of leadership vs. technical skills needed based on position:

Scott’s model makes a lot of sense. He’s also had a lot of first hand experience in coaching executives that are struggling, and it’s rarely a lack of technical skills that get them it trouble.

I’m sure we can all think of exceptions to this rule. I’ve already mentioned finance. HR colleagues in the motion picture industry have told me that it is so heavily dependant on relationships that it’s difficult to be successful without industry experience. I’m sure there’s many more. The problem is, while we all may agree that in higher level positions, leadership outweighs technical, we all think our situation is the exception. I see it all the time in the succession planning work I do, as I often run into resistance in trying to broker cross-functional development moves.

I know where I stand, and it’s based on one of my worst management mistakes ever. Years ago, I was hiring a trainer. I had two strong candidates. Candidate A had years or experience at different companies, a master’s degree, and all the right technical qualifications. There was something about her that didn’t sit well with me, and there was a report of her losing her temper and swearing at a trainee recently.

Candidate B was likable, respected by everyone, had chemistry with my team, and seemed to have unlimited potential. She only has an associate’s degree with little technical experience.
You can guess how this story ended – I made the wrong choice and hired A. She ended up swearing at me, and my manager, and finally quit before I could fire her. B went on to become a department head.

How about you: who would you rather have as a manager or leading your organization: the great leader or the technical expert?